Women Who Dared

barbara walters
Evan Agostini/AP

Happy Birthday, Barbara Walters, First Female Television News Anchor

September 25, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Barbara Walters, the first woman news anchor on television, quashed the belief that women had no place in the news industry. Through “Barbara Walters Specials” she has reached out to politicians, media darlings, rock stars and murderers, asking tough questions in sensitive ways and bringing unique insights to the character of the world’s most loved and most hated personalities.

Barbara Walters' Early Days

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Barbara Walters was born Sept. 25, 1929, in Boston, Mass. Walters’s childhood was often lonely; her mother devoted much of her attention to Walters’s older sister Jackie, who was mentally handicapped, and Walters was discouraged from bringing friends home. Her father, Lou Walters, operated a chain of nightclubs, and the business kept the family on the move.

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence with an English degree, she worked as an assistant to the publicity director at an NBC affiliate. She then transferred to CBS, where she wrote copy for the “Morning Show” cast. In less than a year, she was promoted to reporter-at-large. Once in front of the camera, she was told not to ask questions about hard news topics, such as war or politics, or to begin interviewing guests until the male interviewers had finished. She returned to NBC, where she established herself as “The Today girl,” writing women’s stories. In 1961, Walters passed her first test as a serious journalist: traveling with Jackie Kennedy to Pakistan and India.

Notable Accomplishments

In 1976, Walters transferred to ABC, where she was offered a $1 million-a-year contract to be the first woman co-anchor of the evening news. Her co-anchor Harry Reasoner didn’t hide his disdain for Walters. Walters confided in a CNN interview, “I was a terrible failure. I thought my career was over.” She was removed from the news desk, but to fulfill her contract, ABC launched the “Barbara Walters Special,” which saved her career.

In 1977, she held a historic joint interview with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Her competition at CBS, the legendary Walter Cronkite, broadcast his own interview only moments later, and at the end of his broadcast said, “Did Barbara get anything I didn’t get?” Walters has gone on to interview every American president since Nixon.
With fame, of course, came criticism and parody, but Barbara ultimately saw the “Barbara Wawa” impression made infamous by the late “SNL” performer Gilda Radner for the gentle ribbing that it was.

From 1984 to 1999, Walters co-hosted “20/20” with Hugh Downs. According to Biography.com, her interview with Monica Lewinsky was the most watched interview ever broadcast on a single television station. Walters’s series “The Ten Most Fascinating People” were also well received.

The Rest of the Story

In 1997, Walters launched ABC’s “The View,” a talk show for women that she still co-hosts. She retired from “20/20” In 1999. Walters underwent surgery in May 2010 to repair a faulty heart valve, but has since returned to “The View.”
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